All of us, to different degrees, engage in imaginary narratives regarding our futures. Imagination takes work, and most people (myself included) tend towards laziness, so these narratives are often fuzzy. We have vague ideas about what we’ll do, where we’ll go, who we’ll meet, and so forth. Sometimes these vague narratives lead us into action and fulfillment; other times they continue indefinitely, running parallel to the inertia of the reality of our lives.
Fear (of death, injury, disease, poverty, failure, loneliness, shame, or change itself) holds us back. We postpone action for fear of what that action will cost us. On the other hand, fear can also propel us; considering our own impermanence and limited time on this planet can kick us into gear. Fear of where our current life trajectory will lead us, if we don’t change our direction, can be equally motivating. To get to where we want to be, it’s usually necessary to take some risks, to put it on the line, to face our fears, and really go for it.
That’s not what this post is about.
There are other changes we can make in our lives — small changes — that can enormously influence our quality of life. These changes often have zero (or close to zero) associated cost or risk. How can we more easily identify these possible changes? Simple, low-effort actions that result in big positive change are the low-hanging fruit of life (also see Low-Hanging Fruit Part I – Charity and Low-Hanging Fruit Part II – Health). Implementing positive change can become a habit in itself; small changes can cascade into big changes. If you’re not feeling geared up enough to turn your life upside down in your quest for greater satisfaction and happiness, you can always start small.
Immediately Actualizing Your Most Accessible Dreams
Do you have any expensive fantasies? Maybe you’d like to own a flat in Paris; you could jet in, stay for a week or two, reconnect with your French lover, and drink crates of obscenely expensive wine. Maybe you’d like to own a baseball team. Or perhaps you’re the private island type, or maybe you fancy yourself a space pilot or hot-air balloon circumnavigator, Richard Branson style. Personally I would like to build a massive prehistoric garden, with Jurassic-era plants, fossil replicas, and maybe animatronic dinosaurs.
Aside from the prehistoric garden, lack of money usually isn’t what’s stopping me. There are lots of things that we might fantasize about doing for years, or even decades, but keep putting off for no good reason. We can afford it, we can make the time, and yet for some reason we don’t start. I’m not sure why this is, but I know that when I can break through the inertia and just do the things I want to do, it’s immensely satisfying and results in a big quality of life jump. For example:
- The $2 espresso cup — I’ve always enjoyed drinking coffee out of an espresso cup, but I prefer the taste of drip coffee to espresso. I bought myself a couple small espresso cups at IKEA for about $2 each, and I get immense pleasure every morning drinking drip coffee out of my little espresso cup. The coffee stays hot, and I can drink an impressive six to eight cups each morning without feeling overcaffeinated.
- Ferns — we bought some ferns and planted them. I love ferns. It’s not my dream garden yet, but $15 at the nursery went a long way towards helping me imagine my grandiose prehistoric garden. Ancient plants — essentially unchanged for millions of years. I love looking at those things.
- Become a writer — a lifelong dream that I’ve only pursued in earnest since becoming a father. What’s involved? Writing every day, or at least most days. That’s it. Outside of pens and notebooks, costs are nonexistent. I’d like to eventually find an agent and get published, but for the moment I’m happy writing and blogging (the latter counts as self-publishing, and the blog only took an hour or so to set up). Why did I wait so long to start?
- Live and work abroad — both Kia and I have wanted to do this for years, but it took us awhile to take the plunge. We’re going to live and work in Costa Rica for six weeks. We’re renting a house in the jungle, bringing our kid and our laptops, and getting on a plane. How’s it all going to work out? I have no idea — I’ll let you know. But so far it looks like the cost of the trip will be similar to the cost of staying at home. We don’t have to sell our house, uproot our lives, etc. — we’re just picking up and going for awhile. If it works out well then maybe we’ll experiment with longer trips. Reading The Four Hour Workweek definitely encouraged us to take the leap.
None of these changes involved any more risk than I would otherwise experience in daily life (in terms of safety, I live in Oakland and drive a car — is riding a bicycle in Costa Rica going to be more dangerous?). What I lose in billable hours to writing, traveling, staring at my ferns, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee out of my little espresso cup will hopefully be made up by new ideas, new relationships, and passive income from royalties down the road (that may sound optimistic, but it has worked out that way for time I’ve spent writing and producing music, and I’m no musical genius).
What’s your easily accessible dream that you can immediately implement? I’d like to know — please comment below. I once asked an acquaintance what she would do if she won $20 million in the lottery. She said she’d like to produce an off-Broadway production of the musical Hair. What would that cost, $20K? She didn’t mention what she’d do with the remaining $19,980,000.
Identify High Stress Areas — Reduce 10%
What’s the most stressful part of your week? What activity, person, or place makes you tense your shoulders or gives you that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. Is it traffic or your commute? A co-worker? Dealing with your financial accounts?
Is there a course of action you can take that can reduce the stress level by 10%? This might not sound like much, but if you think about it in terms of a 10% quality-of-life improvement, it’s worth thinking about the problem.
For example, can you:
- change your commute time to avoid traffic
- negotiate a swap of tasks or chores with you co-workers or co-habitators so that you don’t have to do that job you hate (and vice-versa)
- limit communication with your most high maintenance client/co-worker/customer
- complete a task online instead of in-person (DMV, filing forms, etc.)
- change your mode of communication around a contentious issue
- become more accepting of other people’s behavior, and ask for more acceptance of your own behavior
In relationships (marriage, work, whatever) people have different stress levels around different topics. Discussing some topics (money, future plans, child-rearing practices, etc.) might be easy for one person but stressful for the other. The more sensitive party will find their heart rate increasing, their body tensing up, and other physical manifestations of stress when the topic is raised. It’s important to not corner someone and force them into a conversation when they’re not ready, or allow yourself to be cornered when you’re not ready. It’s acceptable to say “I don’t want to discuss this right now — can we discuss it at x time instead?” Ambush conversations are a significant source of stress, and they’re easily avoidable.
In my own life, the demands of fatherhood can sometimes be a source of stress. Like all parents, Kia and I have been forced to find ways to deal with the demands of small, vocal primate with limited table manners and even more limited self-sufficiency. I in particular had a hard time adjusting to the absence of vast expanses of free time that used to dominate the landscape of my life and consciousness. I’d chosen to make a living as a freelancer, forgoing the 9-to-5 lifestyle, mainly because it afforded me opportunities to read books in the middle of the day, stare at the trees for hours on end, and generally avoid people telling me what to do and when and how to do it. Now a young creature, partly of my own making, charming but also demanding, was making mincemeat of my free time, peaceful sleep, and hard-won lounging about lifestyle. Worse than a tyrannical boss!
I’ve managed to reclaim aspects of my preferred vacation-like existence, enough so that I’m generally quite happy. The solution was straightforward; pay for and use more outside childcare than we actually needed. This, combined with help from my daughter’s enthusiastic grandparents, allows me not only to maintain my sanity but to have enough free “space out” time so that I can spend time with my daughter without any feelings of resentment. The extra expense requires more financial discipline in other areas, but buying myself more free time feels like money well spent.
Implementing this plan required some acceptance from Kia, which I asked for and she has generously given. She has mentioned that she didn’t realize how important my “down time” (for entertainment, spacing out, doing nothing, etc.) was for my psychological well-being until there was real pressure on that time (and I turned into a miserable sod, for a while).
The alternative to analyzing and reducing your stress is lower quality of life, and eventually “Id Rebellion.” If the landscape of your life is weighted too much towards what you experience as drudgery and toil, your subconscious mind will eventually grab the reins; you’ll find yourself acting out (drugs, excess drinking, shutting down emotionally, isolating yourself, gambling … insert your own variety of “bad behavior”). This happens to everyone at one point or another, and we may or may not emerge unscathed. I think a measured, analytical approach to stress reduction can mitigate episodes of Id Rebellion.
Internal Entitlement (not Enlightenment)
I’m not suggesting that we should live small; that we should be satisfied with eking out small pleasures in life. If you hate your job, or if you have big relationship problems, then big change is a prerequisite to happiness. And if you have big dreams then you should pursue them. But small changes lead to big changes. When we’re proactive, and take 100% responsibility for our own actions and experience of life (regardless of how much we can actually control), then positive change becomes habitual. More and more we feel entitled to complete enjoyment of life.
This sense of internal entitlement — an allegiance to our own preferences — is different than expecting that the world owes us a living. And it’s not the same as steamrolling people and insisting that we always get our way. It is about finding out what makes you happy, and what doesn’t, and doing more of the former and less of the latter.
This simple way of living can be threatening to people that defer their own enjoyment of life for no good reason. You might become a positive threat; your proactive attitude might be interpreted as a criticism of their own way of life.
However I think that’s probably the exception — most people in your life who notice you making changes will be inspired to make positive changes of their own (and those changes may then inspire you in turn, thus creating a positive feedback loop).
I’d love to hear about your own experiences in either of these areas — stress reduction and dream implementation. What actions did you take and how did it affect your quality of life?